St Patrick and the ‘Snakes’

I commented on a blog post by the wonderful Drew Jacob yesterday. I would first like to apologise publicly for my tone, and for not communicating clearly. (Well, publicly meaning ‘in front of my three readers’.) I should not have taken my anger out on Drew, who is awesome, and incredibly committed to his religion and to the Celtic/Gaelic reconstructionist community that he serves as a priest. And whose projects I’m in awe of and have tried to support, including his 8000-mile walk from North to South America and his Magic to the People project. And I’m sure I’m one of those people who have missed his point. But to deny that his post upset me would be a lie, and it would show a lack of integrity on my part. So let me try to explain.

I understand Drew’s desire to wear black, instead of green, on a holiday for a man who is mythically renowned for defeating druids and forcing people to convert. Even though these legends are far more fantasy than fact, Drew objects to the celebration of someone whose stories are about destroying the old gods (as far as I understand it). This is at least a more rational reason to boycott St Patrick’s Day than the concept of ‘All Snakes’ Day’, which riffs off the name of a holy Christian celebration of the ancestors, and uses the misinterpretation of the myth that St Patrck drove all the snakes from Ireland as its icon. (As I’m sure most people reading this know, the snakes were never a symbol for pagans in the myth, and there was never an invasion of Ireland by evil Christians who drove the pagans away. They were all the *same* people.) I don’t object to these things for interfaith reasons. I’m an active supporter of the interfaith movement, but I don’t much care what Christians think of the holidays I celebrate, or don’t (just as I’m not that interested in Christian holidays anymore). This is a different debate from the ‘Christians stole our holidays’ nonsense (which irritates me for very different reasons, but that’s for another post). This is about the Irish community, at home and in diaspora. Neither am I saying that Irish/Celtic Pagans ‘should’ celebrate St Patrick’s Day. I personally don’t! I don’t object to people boycotting holidays as their conscience leads them. I object to *some* of the attitudes behind some of these boycotts. I don’t object to Drew’s boycott, specifically. It must be highly irritating to be a Celtic polytheist and see people around you celebrating a villain of your mythic paradigm. But I was accused of shaming those who refuse to celebrate it, and that was *not* what I meant. I don’t care who doesn’t celebrate it, and I have no interest in celebrating the saint in question myself. So here’s my attempt to explain more clearly. The attempt may fail, as this is a visceral and largely irrational reaction. But I’m trying to work out what’s behind it, for my benefit more than for anyone else’s.

If the concept of wearing black on St Patrick’s Day, or mocking it as ‘All Snakes’ Day’, is upsetting to me, it’s because there is a context. It hurts me to see Irish culture mocked, especially by Gaelic/Celtic Pagans and polytheists. It hurts me because I grew up in England in the 1980s, when there were ways that the Irish were treated that – thank the gods – you mostly don’t see anymore. It was a time when Irish-English relations were not good, and very complicated. It wasn’t quite the time when signs like ‘no blacks, no dogs, no Irish’ were around – but they were also only a relatively recent memory to the Irish community. I grew up at a time and in a place where, if you had an Irish accent on a train or a plane, you were treated like a terrorist. I grew up when, on hearing that I had Irish heritage, people said “Are any of your family in the IRA?” I grew up at a time and in a place where, when my mother spoke with an English accent in a pub in Dublin, she and my father nearly got beaten up (somewhat ironically – she was arguing with a man that she was Irish, not English – as indeed she is). I grew up being asked if there were ‘gypsies’ in my family. I grew up being mocked for coming from a poor country where people are idiots. You don’t hear the racist jokes as much as you used to, and the fear of the IRA is gone now, and by the time I was a teenager, most of this had ended. But I remember.

And I am *not* accusing Drew Jacob, an honourable man who I respect deeply, of racism. He is committed to his heritage, his religion and his people, and I should have been more respectful of that when I replied to his post. But I am asking all American Pagans (and I do see it almost exclusively from Americans) to be aware that, if they were lucky enough to grow up in a land where their Irish heritage was valued and sometimes even romanticised, it wasn’t always like that for the Irish community around the world. Including in recent memory. And maybe to have a little bit of sensitivity. The way you see St Patrick’s Day in America is *not* the only way it is seen and celebrate around the world. The culture romanticised by many Celtic Pagans (a lot of Americans, and some Brits these days) is a struggling one. Ireland is currently struggling to keep her language and culture alive. Her people are suffering from economic difficulties – when I last went back to see my cousins, last summer, most of them were jobless and very angry at the rest of Europe (and the politicians who persuaded them that the Euro was the answer to all their problems). It’s also a very beautiful, very hospitable, and very Catholic country. If you’re a Celtic Pagan and you’ve never been to Ireland, it’s really important to go, and to see the statues of Mary on every corner of the road (I leave her an offering at least once each visit, as the most highly-honoured spirit in Ireland) and hear the people talk about how closely religion and culture are linked there – despite the recent, serious decline in numbers of active church-goers. There are St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Dublin, but in my experience, a lot of the rest of the country doesn’t do much for it. In my opinion, the holiday that many Pagans are protesting today is far, far more American than it is Irish. I’m not keen to see it being exported back around the world, including here, which is one more good reason why I’m not going out drinking tonight. There weren’t St Paddy’s Day parades here when I was growing up – at least, not that I can remember. Just questions about whether you were a ‘gypsy’ or an IRA supporter.

I don’t really celebrate St Paddy’s Day – certainly not by getting drunk. I find the Americanized version of the holiday a little crass. Associating drunkenness with the Irish is a stereotype that goes back to the Romans, and it’s not very interesting. (Also, I live in Britain, where we don’t need an excuse to get drunk.) But I may pour out some Guinness to the old gods of Ireland today, since Ireland is on my mind, thanks to this discussion. I’m far more interested in how Ireland is currently doing in the Six Nations rugby tournament. (Not well. When they last won, *that* was a good excuse for celebrating Ireland in my house. The wife, who is Irish by nationality, is a little bit rugby-obsessed.)

I doubt this incoherent post has helped explain my position much further. But I hope it’s given a bit of a snapshot into the experience of having Irish heritage in the UK, and how different it is from America. And I hope I’ve at least vaguely shown that I don’t celebrate or care about the holiday, and I certainly don’t think all Irish/Celtic Pagans ‘should’ be celebrating this holiday. That is an assumption based on an American worldview which not all of us share. But there *are* more reasons to be offended by some Pagans’ reactions to this holiday than just having Christian sympathies. As it happens, I do have some of those. But most of the people celebrating this festival are not practising Christians (the Egyptians, for example, who are lighting the pyramids up in green tonight – and the now-non-religious majority in these islands). I care much more about how I honour living Irish culture than I do about Christianity. I don’t care if you do or don’t celebrate this day (although I’d prefer it if you didn’t represent Irish culture through drinking and stereotypes), but I do care about how modern Irish culture is treated and respected by those of us who follow the old gods. Again, I should not have lumped Drew in with those who disrespect living Gaelic culture. This is a ‘trigger’ issue for me – but I should respond to it carefully and respectfully nonetheless.

So whatever you do or don’t do tonight, if you call yourself a Celtic or Gaelic Pagan or polytheist, think about the Irish reality behind American holidays, and don’t assume the way they’re celebrated in the US is the only way they’re seen around the world.

(Sorry about typos. I’m on my tablet computer, on a train.)

15 thoughts on “St Patrick and the ‘Snakes’

  1. “As I’m sure most people reading this know, the snakes were never a symbol for pagans in the myth…” Do you have a source for this, and if so, what is it? I am very interested.


    • The legend about St Patrick and the snakes only dates back as far as the 11th century CE, whereas he was in Ireland in the 5th century CE. The cult of St Patrick is probably medieval, not ancient, and almost certainly doesn’t start before the 7th century (see links below) – it was at its height around the 17th century CE. Some scholars have wondered whether the reference might have might meant the demons of pre-Christian belief, but only relatively recently. It seems likely that the legend was originally meant in literal terms. There were no snakes in Ireland until quite recently (they have started being observed in small numbers there now, as a result of things like pet snakes that have escaped or been set free). When the legend was conceived, it was probably a ‘just-so’ story of sorts. “Why don’t we have snakes in Ireland?” “Maybe St Patrick drove them all out!” (Of course, Ireland doesn’t have indigenous snakes for sensible, scientific reasons – I believe it’s to do with the physical separation of the land from the rest of Europe, and its timing in relation to the ice age.)

      Furthermore, many of the myths of St Patrick involve conflation of various Christian missionaries into one mythicized figure. He has particularly been conflated with the papal representative Palladius (which is why there are references to a ‘Scots Patrick’ and an ‘Old Patrick’ – different people), and we know so little about him that it can be assumed that most of the legends about him are just that – legends. While he clearly existed, the Christianization of Ireland took a long time (centuries), and did not happen all in one go with Patrick, by any means. (Although he certainly made a very strong attempt at converting the country – it just doesn’t seem to have happened all that quickly.) The idea of Pagans vs Christians in Ireland is an over-simplification, too. What we have of Irish myth today is *highly* Christianized, and we will never be able to separate the paganism entirely from the Christianity. That’s part of the reason why my own path includes some Christian leanings, which is as true to the path of my ancestors as I’m going to get, because there will have been many, many ‘pagan Christians’ in my Irish Christian heritage.

      It’s only more recently that the neo-Pagan community has jumped on the ‘snakes = Pagans” concept. This kind of historical and mythical revisionism by neo-Pagans rather does my head in. It’s an example of conflation of old and new, of pre-Christian pagan religions with modern neo-Paganism, and poor interpretation of myth. There’s no reason we shouldn’t see the story as allegorical *today*, but the dating of the legend suggests it probably wasn’t meant that way to begin with. As long as we’re clear about that, though, people can do what they like with the story. I will continue to see it as a silly attempt to wrestle back St Patrick’s Day from ‘the Christians’ though – and it’s not like we need St Patrick’s Day. There are plenty of good alternatives associated with our own gods – or we can create them. I’ll be celebrating Latha na Caillich, a day for the Cailleach, on 25th March, which Christians call Lady Day. We have actual records of a folkloric (if not necessarily pagan) celebration of her in Scotland on that day. Seems much more positive and focused on the old gods than a holiday wrestled ‘back’ from a different faith, to me. YMMV of course! :)

      Some links you might be interested in, on this subject:
      Walsh & Bradley, 1991, ‘A History of the Irish Church, 400-700 AD’

      • Through oral tradition, I have come to understand that the underground, Druid priests, were easily recognized by their followers when they extended their hands from their cloaks revealing snake tatoos on their wrists. Without speaking a word, they were easily identified for their true nature.

      • My only written source is “The Mists Of Avalon,” by Marion Zimmer Bradley. My daughter has recently left the house with my copy so I am unable to check references for the book itself. Hopefully, Bradley has recorded a source. Please let me know of your research on this. I would also welcome a source. It may be worth researching traditional Gaelic ballads, since that is such a part of the oral traditions.

      • Hmm. Bradley writes fiction – and what she wrote in that book, entertaining though it was, wasn’t intended as history. If she did provide a source to suggest her fiction was more historically-accurate than fantasy, I’d be interested to hear about it, but I don’t expect she did. I haven’t come across anything like that in the traditional songs or stories – but again, even references there would be unlikely to pre-date the 17th C. But again, happy to be proved wrong. I do prefer to rely on scholars as my first source for reconstructionism.

      • Agreed. Visit pubs to witness recitations…then let me know what you hear. Meanwhile, I will visit and investigate at Boston College School of Irish History.

  2. Excellent article, but as an Irish-American, I believe a few comments deserve contrast. As a second generation Irish Citizen, my family and plenty of others of Irish decent in Massachusetts recall the widespread discrimination against the Irish. It was quite common to see signs in businesses, “Irish Need Not Apply,” or in a restaurant, “No Irish Allowed.” In America today, you are likely to see buttons and t-shirts that say people “wish” they were Irish and yes, use the day as an excuse to drink themselves into oblivion. It’s worth noting that Boston, Massachusetts, Suffolk County, has a bank holiday on March 17th, not for St. Patrick’s Day, but as a Revolutionary War Holiday. It is called “Evacuation Day,” when the Revolutionary Army drove the British Troops out of the City of Boston, a major turning point in the US Revolutionary War.

    Blessed Be,
    Mary Ann

  3. Sophia, love this post, very heart felt and as far as I can tell very accurate with the history. I had the IRA conversation with some work colleagues who I told that I class myself as an Ulsterman. But that is what some English are like, even today.

  4. Pingback: In which I rant about cultural misappropriation, cultural differences, and extreme self-sufficiency… | Treasure in Barren Places

  5. Interesting take from a different perspective. An interesting complaint I heard this year was that celebrating St. Patrick’s Day is racist because it’s for white people. People will always complain about any holiday.

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